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Campus Sexual Assault: the Educational Experience I Never Wanted

The University of British Columbia University Sexual Assault Panel‘s report, which provides recommendations for both the university’s stand-alone policy as well as their sexual assault action plan, goes to President Martha Piper today, and it will have its public release at a date soon to be determined. I have spent the past three months working weekly with a group of excellent and committed UBC faculty members on this report. We have all put in more hours than originally anticipated, and in the last few weeks in particular I have been living and breathing this report every single day. This has been difficult, and I must emphasize, completely voluntary work. It has been work that comes with more costs than it does rewards.

And there have been costs for me, ones that I cannot even yet fully grasp.

While it has been a choice to go public and to advocate for change around sexual assault in educational institutions, it has also changed my life irrevocably, and not always for the better. I have given up my privacy. In many cases, I have given up my dignity: the most traumatic incidents of my life have become fodder for trolls on the internet. In being such a vocal critic of universities, I have also potentially signalled my liability as an employee in academic spaces. I do not have the protection of job security or the academic freedom that comes with a tenured position. I have tried to do all of this work while also balancing my research and my teaching. It is financially precarious, emotionally and intellectually arduous, and often frighteningly lonely.

In doing this work, I have also lived and re-lived some of the most humiliating and traumatizing incidents of my life. It is no coincidence that of the six incidents of sexual assault I have experienced since 2002, five of them have taken place on the campuses of educational institutions, UBC included. As is evident by so many of the stories coming out in the press, educational spaces are ones in which violence often goes un-checked, or worse, covered-up. Policies are lacking. Resources are non-existent or understaffed. Education around responding to disclosures is not always present or consistent. In the past three months, as I have had to give more thought to how UBC should be better equipped to respond to reports and disclosures of sexual assault, I have thought about my own assault that took place at UBC more than five years ago, one that I pushed as far into the recesses of my mind as possible so that I could focus on my doctoral degree.

I should say that deciding not to deal with that sexual assault more or less succeeded. To the outside world, anyway. In the years after my assault in 2011, I received federal funding for my scholarly work; I became a Liu Scholar at the Liu Institute for Global Issues; I presented my work at numerous national conferences; I’ve published in top journals in my field; I’ve become a consultant on national and provincial anti-violence initiatives; I’ve sat on countless panels, given countless interviews, written countless articles. I passed my doctoral defence with only two typos as revisions. My C.V., which details the past six years of my doctoral career, reads almost flawlessly, as if nothing ever happened.

But something did happen.

A few weeks into the spring term of 2011, just over a year into my doctoral program, I was sexually assaulted in the graduate lounge of my department, by student who had recently graduated from the program. I will spare you the preamble and the gory details, not because I am ashamed, but because they don’t particularly matter, and I am, despite my public persona, an intensely private person. But what you need to know is that I was terrified. Having someone’s arm crushing your sternum, and very nearly your throat, will do that do you. And afterwards, I was lost. I sought help at the Sexual Assault Support Centre, which, at that time, was located at the back corner of the old Student Union Building, right on the edge of what used to be MacInnes Field. In order to get to the front door of the SASC, you had to walk through and past all of the SUB’s garbage and recycling bins. I hope I do not need to explain that the fact that accessing support services adjacent to the building’s trash disposals made me feel as though I, too, was trash. Having tried to report sexual assault during high-school (and getting nowhere) and reporting stalking in my time at SFU (and only getting a rape whistle and a pamphlet), I knew that I wasn’t about to try yet again to receive any sort of justice. So I said nothing. And I did my work. It wasn’t the first time I’d been assaulted, and as it turns out, wasn’t the last. Somehow, violence can take on a strange sense of ordinariness. It becomes a thing that just happens before you get back to work.

Except when you dream about it. Except when it affects every single moment of your life. Except when you’re in crowds, or small spaces, or big crowds, except when you don’t have a seat close to the exit in the room, except when someone frightens you. Except then.

If this is the way things are for me, I want things to be different for others.

Truthfully, I want to live in a world where sexual violence doesn’t exist at all, but if that can’t happen, I want to live in a world where survivors of sexual assault are supported and believed, and where there are robust systems of accountability for both perpetrators and institutions. I believe that the judicial system is flawed, and that we need better options for education and rehabilitation.

I know that I don’t have all the answers.

But what I know is this: I want to live in a world where my fellow survivors and allies do not have to file human rights complaints (Mandi Gray – York University, Glynnis Kirchmeier – University of British Columbia) against their institutions because they are being failed; where we do not have to go to the media because the schools we attend will not listen otherwise. I want to live in a world where survivors do not feel as if they have no choice but to drop out of school, as recently happened at Simon Fraser University. I want to live in a world where survivors, like Lizzy Seeberg, do not take their lives because they are, as Rehtaeh Parsons’ father put it regarding his daughter’s suicide, “disappointed to death” by systems that re-traumatize and re-violate survivors.

I know that the report will not fix everything.

Nor will the policy. Nor will all the blue phones in the world. Because horrible things still happen. Nor do I think everything at UBC is broken, either. There are many good people working in a complicated and often-broken system, one that is ultimately dependent on the fact that a university is not simply a place of learning, but also a business. There are already so many front-line workers (those at the SASC in particular, under the leadership of the incredible Ashley Bentley) and staff members who provide services to sexual assault survivors at UBC every day.

There are UBC faculty who have signed the petition demanding better for their students, and apologizing for not having done enough. They organized a fantastic day of discourse and dialogue around sexual assault in February of this year. I am grateful especially to other students who are doing such amazing work: the ones who worked tirelessly in the decades before I even arrived on campus, the ones who I have stood with in my own time as a student, the ones who take up the torch now. This journey has connected me to so many of you, not just at UBC, but across the country, and although we have come together under such awful circumstances, I am so glad and grateful to know you. I wish you didn’t have to go through this. I know it’s such hard work. I keep a fire for you in my heart, always.

At the end of the day, I am not a faculty member, nor an administrator, nor a politician. I do not hold exceptional power within the UBC system. I am just a person who has been fortunate enough to hear stories that have been disclosed to me in whispers and private messages and phone calls. I am humbled by those stories, even as they keep me up at night, worried. I am just a person who has gone through some extremely difficult experiences, ones that I don’t care for anyone else to have to go through. That these experiences have occurred in the context of my schooling is painful; painful because school has otherwise been a place of joy for me, painful because sexual violence formed part of a curriculum I had no desire to have delivered to me. I have, as Raymond M. Douglas writes in his book On Being Raped, gained knowledge, but “not the sort that does you, or anybody else, any good. When I was raped, I learned things about myself and the world I live in that it would have been far better not to know. And for most of my adult life, the knowledge has been killing me” (4). I could have happily gone through my educational career without these particular insights. I could even have written my dissertation on representations of sexual violence without the added expertise of lived experience.

Having finished my PhD, I now leave the hallowed halls of UBC behind, hoping that in some small measure, they have become a better place for survivors because I and others have spoken up, and because panels like the one I was privileged to be a part of are doing the work that they are doing. I am aware of the fact that the increased scrutiny of the university’s response to sexual assault has been a nightmare for students, faculty, staff, and administrators alike.

51OmLU9LfHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_But I don’t think that the fact that UBC is currently under pressure to respond thoughtfully is a bad thing. Following the publication of his book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer faced incredible amounts of backlash by the town of Missoula itself, by the University of Montana, and by the police force. As reported by Jacob Baynham on Outside Onlineone woman left this comment on Krakauer’s Facebook page: “I am so disappointed in the title of your book,” said one woman on Krakauer’s Facebook page. “I hate to see a lovely town’s reputation get destroyed.” But as Krakauer points out, Missoula is just one example of the epidemic of sexual violence across America. Missoula could just as easily be Stanford, could just as easily be here in Vancouver. But the conversation sparked by such intense scrutiny has, at least as far as is being reported, created actual change. After a town hall forum in Missoula, Baynham reports that Krakauer was asked if he’d send his daughter to the University of Montana. “I would,” he said. “I think the university is safer now than most schools. Missoula is a lot better than most places. You have this big problem, but you’ve gone a long way toward fixing it.”

I think that the University of British Columbia can be a Missoula: not the school to be made a painful and humiliating example of, but the school that paves the way for comprehensive change at all levels of administration and campus life, and does in a way that does not simply prioritize supporting sexual assault survivors because it will look like a better strategy for fundraising. Call me an idealist, but I think it’s possible. And there are so many people, myself included, who want to make that happen. There are countless people with whom our panel consulted of the course of our work. The university’s draft sexual assault policy has been released, and both campus and community stakeholders are invited to give feedback here.

But for now, I take my leave from my alma mater, look for brave new worlds. There is so much anti-violence work out there to do, and I will continue to do it. May the development of the UBC sexual assault policy and the action plan be an honest process, tempered by humility and by courage. For all of the survivors of sexual assault who live and work at UBC: I love you, I am in awe of you, I believe you.

Much luck and much love,

Lucia

On the Politics of Lady Gaga’s PSA and Campus Rape

This is a collaborative piece written by Lauren Chief Elk-Young Bear & Lucia Lorenzi. 

Less than a week ago, Lady Gaga debuted a new music video in an effort to address campus sexual assault: it has been a terrible collision of pop culture, feminism, and anti-violence advocacy. Having already received more than 8 million views on YouTube, and being promoted by celebrities such as Oprah, “’Til It Happens To You” (with lyrics by Dianne Warren, and directed by Catherine Hardwicke of Twilight fame) is being hailed as “powerful,” and as something that everyone “must watch.” Gaga is additionally being celebrated for helping to shine a light on the epidemic and movement to end gender-based violence in colleges. The popularized, corporate, celebrity activism that has consumed anti-violence activism has been horrendous. Taking a breath to watch this video was difficult.

For those who have not yet seen the video, it is essentially five+ minutes of graphic re-enactments of different sexual assault situations. We are failing to see what this type of “advocacy” achieves other than shock and the remaking of violence as consumptive; a spectacle. Sexual assault becomes entertainment. It reminds us of domestic violence awareness posters that feature bloodied and bruised women to “make a point”. These scenes and images never have a point. Like other forms of media that are designed to “raise awareness” (including popular shows such as Law and Order: SVU), there is a strong element of voyeurism about this, much like psychological horror film. We live in a time when the proliferation of technology has made it easier for campus assaults to be filmed and recorded by rapists to then be spread around; Steubenville is but one example of this increased tendency for perpetrators to document and disseminate their crimes. As such, we question what efficacy this video will have to stop violence when it directly participates in the culture that perpetuates it.

Beyond the ways in ways in which it uses the spectacle of sexual violence in order to convey its message, there are number of other problematic messages being perpetuated by the video itself and lyrics of the song.

The language of kinship has been frequently used as a means of inciting people to care about the issue of sexual violence. Most often, however, these discourses only mirror the same types of patriarchal relationships and power structures that for years governed how sexual assault was understood and prosecuted: not as assaults on individual women’s bodies and minds, but as property crimes against the men who either were either legally or socially seen to own them. Like many mainstream anti-violence campaigns, the White House’s recent “1 is 2 many” video reinforced this deeply patriarchal and heteronormative model of social accountability and care by stating that sexual violence is happening to “our sisters, daughters, wives, and friends.”

“Til It Happens To You” invokes a very different model of empathy, one that is based on personal experience. “’Til it happens to you, you won’t know how it feels,” sings Gaga. “’Til you’re standing in my shoes, I don’t want to hear a thing from you.” In some ways, we can completely understand the sentiment behind Dianne Warren’s lyrics. The trauma of sexualized and gender-based violence is often profoundly difficult to speak about, and survivors’ experiences and feelings are frequently misunderstood, minimized, or actively denied and invalidated. However, the notion that survivors will automatically respond well to other survivors is at best misguided in its suggestion that all experiences of sexual assault are similar enough to create mutual understanding. At worst, it completely ignores the various forms of oppression and harm that survivors of sexual violence can enact against their peers: we need only look to the example of Eve Ensler and her exploitation of racialized women (particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a large portion of her work has been done).

In seeing all experiences of sexual violence (and all survivors) as relatively interchangeable, it becomes possible to ignore and deny the intersections of oppression and privilege that shape both how individual acts of violence are experienced, and also how survivors are treated after their assaults. While the video depicts a surprisingly wide range of survivor identities, there is no nuanced analysis, let alone even an acknowledgement that sexual violence affects queer, trans, racialized, or disabled women any differently than it does straight, cis, white, able-bodied women. While we might give the creators small credit for at least showing a more diverse range of survivors (given the ways in which the face of campus rape is generally fairly monolithic), a failure to acknowledge the reality faced by diverse women is in itself a violent form of erasure. The utopian ending to the video, in which all of the survivors are surrounded and supported by friends, is at the moment, just that: utopian, and not a current or useful reflection of the barriers that survivors face in accessing support from both their peers and from professionals.

The end scene of friends coming in to the rooms of the survivors to get them out of bed and take them down the hallway is also worrisome. Did the survivors ask to be removed? Where are the friends taking them? Where is the survivors’ agency in deciding what they need, or what steps they would like to take? Sexual trauma is excruciatingly difficult, and trying to fix it for someone or dictating when the grieving process should be over opens up a world of problems. We need to let people be in their trauma for as much time as necessary and be supportive counterparts. Moreover, where were they being taken: was it to the police? Did these women wish to report their assaults? This is another decision we cannot make for people. If survivors wish to invoke law enforcement we need to afford them to personal autonomy to do so, as we know that process can be re-traumatizing and equally devastating.

There is a theme here, too, about rape survivors disclosing, and that nobody else will know exactly what this violence is like unless they are also raped. To “know,” in this particular model of anti-violence activism, is also to have to voice their experience. The truth is that often, those who’ve experienced abuse and trauma never share. They never tell their story. This is not necessarily about suffering in silence, but rather, is about protecting oneself from the additional pain that will occur after speaking out: the shaming, blaming, and ostracism, which may come from survivors’ social circles, their places of employment, and from various systems of law enforcement. Many survivors know all too well that speaking out (even to their friends) is no guarantee of safety, comfort, or justice. As such, silence doesn’t mean that abuse didn’t occur; rather, it means making personal decisions about whether or not one is willing to risk the possibility of further trauma.

Beyond the ways in which personal-experience-as-the-road-to-empathy can dangerously reinforce the myths of shared experience, it also places a disproportionate burden on survivors to do the work of support, care, and advocacy. As we look at the vast number of grassroots organizations (on campus and beyond) who are engaged in creating change around this issue, we see that they are often led by survivors who were simply exhausted and exasperated with the lack of supports and services in their community. How often have fellow survivors been the ones creating support groups and staffing phone lines? How often has the burden of shifting male violence been left to women – women who already have experienced or may still yet experience this kind violence in their lives? How many survivors, who are already experiencing deep trauma and distress, have been forced to work as educators and encyclopedias for those who refuse to go elsewhere and learn about gender-based violence and its impacts?

By insinuating that sexual violence is something that cannot be known or understood until it is experienced, Warren’s lyrics run the risk of further isolating survivors, and of allowing bystanders to abdicate the responsibility of listening – truly listening – to survivors and honouring their diverse experiences.  Empathy is not, as it is commonly claimed to be, about “walking in another’s shoes.” Nor is it about attempting to viscerally experience the terror and violence of assault by viewing graphic depictions of women’s violations. Nor, we argue, is it about continuing to position rape as something inevitable; a given.

We cannot afford to wait until sexual violence affects ourselves or our loved ones to take action to address rape on campus, or, as Warren’s lyrics state, to make the issue “real.” We cannot afford to wait for celebrities like Lady Gaga, who profit financially from the creation of such music videos, to tell us that it’s finally time to care. We can’t afford to equate viewing a music video with the tangible contributions of actively (and this includes financially) supporting existing grassroots efforts by those who work everyday to educate, prevent, and respond to campus rape.

Buchanan Tower, UBC.

An Open Letter to VanCity Buzz regarding “Where to hook up at UBC”

To the editors at Vancity Buzz,

There are a few things I can count on at the start of every school year: struggling to navigate my way through rapidly-moving crowds on the busy walkways that were blissfully barren during the slow summer months; enduring long, languid line-ups at every student service building and food outlet; hearing the cheery sounds of music and chatter from the frosh-week booths that crop up all over campus. There is, of course, yet another predictable yet infinitely more frustrating and exhausting series of events that now seems to accompany the beginning of the academic school year: events or articles which seem to fantastically misunderstand that certain aspects of sexuality and campus life are perhaps not the ideal subjects for misguided attempts at satire or sensationalized clickbait.

We’ve seen our fair share of problematic publications come out of universities in recent years, from the sexist and racist chants contained within an Engineering songbook at McMaster University to articles from the Western Gazette TA Article – CTV (UWO) and The Ubyssey – How To Tell if Your TA Likes You (UBC) whose poor attempts at satire about seducing Teaching Assistants were swiftly condemned by students who work in these positions. All this comes, of course, in the wake of a larger discussion of incidents of harassment and assault on college and university campuses, one that continues to be a priority for many campus communities, particularly at this time of year.

While I often take a hard line on these publications and often swiftly call them out, a recent article by Lauren Sundstrom at Vancity Buzz gave me more pause than usual. In her piece “Where to Hook Up at UBC,” Sundstrom offers brief descriptions of what are alleged to be the top five places to have sex on campus. Prefaced by a brief disclaimer about consent, namely that it is imperative and that no means no, Sundstrom declares that while UBC may have achieved prominence in global university rankings, one of its unique strengths lies in the beautiful public spaces within which to hook up. Rounding off the top five places (which include, not surprisingly, libraries and washrooms, as well as the Aquatic Centre and the cliffs by Wreck Beach) was a strange and uneasy surprise: the graduate lounge in my own department. Sundstrom conveys information from a pseudonymous tipster named “Jonathan” that the English Department Graduate Lounge is an excellent place for hook-ups, given its relative isolation after hours.

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            Many have been swift in their condemnation of the piece and its reference to the space. Far from merely tiring of the puerile humour of such frosh-week-style articles, which many critics will claim is “mere sensitivity” and the inability to take a joke, the criticism targets serious concerns about this type of public representation of and unsolicited invitation into a space that represents not only part of a professional environment and workplace, but a safe hub for a particular group of community members.

Admittedly, I have a bias about this space. I have been a member of the English Department for nearly six years in my capacity as a doctoral student, and I enjoy the comfort and convenience of the lounge every week as I enjoy a bite to eat between classes and engage in lively discussion with my colleagues and friends. Slightly-dated décor aside, the lounge is a space where design invites openness: the entrance to the room is constructed of glass, which allows passersby to see who is around. I cannot count the number of times I have seen a friend sitting at the table and have stopped by to chat when I would otherwise simply proceed onward to the computer lab; this gives me joy. Faculty members pass by and we wave. There is a modicum of privacy, too: the two couches are almost entirely obscured by a floor-to-ceiling shelf in the middle of the room, which allows a brief nap in semi-solitude. This is a space I have come to love. Recently, a few of my colleagues and I organized an impromptu shared lunch in the space; some faculty and staff joined us, and it was a lovely moment of community building.

Yet, it is also a space that makes me feel uneasy, a sentiment that I would never wish my other colleagues to have. Yet, in light of this article and its implications, I fear that some might. Several years ago, I was sexually assaulted in this same graduate lounge, by a former friend who had briefly and unexpectedly returned to campus. What distressed me most about what happened was the knowledge that aside from this one individual who had made the choice to enact harm in a space that so many of us consider safe, I had always felt at home there. It is not only about the physical space, of course, but about the community members who help to shape that space. Indeed, respect is a mandate of the lounge: clean up your dishes. Don’t leave food in the sink drainer. Refill the water jug. Pay for any tea or coffee you use.

But now, I’m fairly certain that I am not the only one who feels unsafe in that space, and the irony of having a space opened up without its occupants’ consent does not escape me, as both a survivor and a community advocate around issues of violence. It also does not escape me to think of what it means to offer unsolicited advice to disrespect community spaces, particularly in a university that occupies the unceded lands of the Musqueam people. It does not escape me that not all workplaces would be subject to such disrespect, including, I suspect, the workplaces of Vancity Buzz employees themselves. It does not escape me that such an article may cast undue and uncalled-for aspersions on members of the department, who conduct themselves with respect for others. Indeed, many of us have banded together to articulate our problems with Sundstrom’s article, whether through comments on Twitter, Facebook, on Vancity Buzz’s website, or through private emails to both Sundstrom and your editorial staff. Others have pointed out similar issues with Sundstrom’s other article regarding hook-up spots at Simon Fraser University, one of which is a washroom reserved for people with disabilities.

If we ought to have learned anything in the past few years, it is that conversations about consent, about sexual violence, and about safe spaces on university campuses and in workplaces are nuanced and that they require both careful thought and accountability. Consent is about more than “no means no.” Indeed, as demonstrated by numerous consent-focused campaigns in recent months and years, it’s about affirmative and enthusiastic consent. This isn’t to say, of course, that people have never unwittingly or accidentally walked in on others engaging in sexual activity. Indeed, sex in public places may be a thing for some people, but the basic rule of sex with healthy boundaries is this: don’t get anyone involved who doesn’t want to be. This is not about prudishness or the condemnation of sexuality, which I’m certain other critics may charge the complainants with. Rather, it is about the reality that when articles point out — indeed, promote — the enjoyment of the participants in sexual activity over the safety or the access of the people who work and live and rest in particular spaces, this violates some of the most basic concepts of consent.

After a day off from work, I will again return to the department on Friday to enjoy tea and conversation in the lounge with its orange chairs and its terribly-bright floral tablecloth. I will, however, now carry with me into that space a distinct sense of unease and worry, as well as a heavy knowledge that its boundaries were breached by someone who has likely never even stepped foot into it nor has met the vibrant community of individuals who call that space a little home away from home.

Joseph Kosuth, "One and Three Chairs." (1965)

One and Five Chairs

Joseph Kosuth,

Joseph Kosuth, “One and Three Chairs.” (1965)

Content Note: this piece contains descriptions of sexual violence.

ONE AND FIVE CHAIRS

The empty chair is the passenger seat of his car;

I am fifteen years old.

They always tell young women not to walk home alone at night,

so I accept the ride I already know will take me anywhere but home.

When it is over, he asks for a kiss as a token of his generosity

in granting me “safe” passage.

O captain, my captor; I carry in my blood and the melanin of my skin

the knowledge of what we women have survived to reach the shores,

knowing full well that it is not freedom

that awaits us when we disembark.

——-

The empty chair is the dressing room of the high-school theatre;

I am sixteen years old.

Four hands on my body, under the guise of a prank,

grasping at my arms, then my bra, until the flimsy material comes undone.

It’s a joke, they say,

and I, the girl-doll, dutifully laugh.

As I re-clasp the bra at the middle of my back,

I run my fingers over my vertebrae.

It occurs to me that if I could sharpen them enough through starvation,

perhaps they could swiftly slice open any hands

that would ever again dare to touch this flesh.

——-

The empty chair is the bare stage of the black box theatre;

I am seventeen years old.

As our scene study from A Streetcar Named Desire comes to an end,

my theatre instructor tells my scene partner to

“keep going as if you were raping her.”

This is not in the script. There has been no rehearsal.

I am not permitted to file my objection, because

I am suddenly face to face with sweaty brow and insistent hands;

there is an audience and so I mumble: “those aren’t the lines.”

Of course there are no lines; this is unscripted.

At least, I reason, the scene has the authenticity of fear.

Weeks later, I learn that my scene partner has assaulted another woman in my class.

I want to say I am surprised,

but I know that he is well-rehearsed in his craft.

——-

The empty chair is the waiting room of health services;

I am twenty-two years old.

He is a stranger, a fellow student.

His chatter is friendly at first, then insistent. I am polite.

Of course I am always polite.

Then he is everywhere; even waits after-hours for me to emerge

from a late doctor’s appointment.

I pull phrases out from my arsenal: “Please leave me alone. I already have a boyfriend.”

Shoulder-grip. I am suddenly aware that there is no-one around.

“You need a new boyfriend.” His breath is hot on my neck.

At campus security, I am given a neon pink rape whistle

and a glossy pamphlet on stalking.

“Don’t worry,” the woman says to me.

“He just sounds like the misguided kind of stalker. They’re mostly harmless.”

Mostly.

——-

The empty chair is the faux leather couch in the graduate lounge;

I am twenty-four years old.

It starts at my feet: my boots being wrestled off,

and as I sit up to protest, I am vice-gripped across my chest,

pressure against my sternum.

I do what I have been told I ought to have done before:

wrestle, twist, say no, no (louder), and stop, with an extra

please for all the socially ingrained female politeness that I still cannot shake.

Without my glasses, I cannot make out the figure standing near the

elevator doors that are in my field of view,

cannot scream,

cannot do anything.

A while later, there is another ding of the elevator, and I am released before anything else happens.

I splash water on my face, re-touch my lipstick.

Could have been worse, I say,

as I pull up yet another empty chair to my table.

Threshold: A Poem for New Year’s Eve

coin_janus_225-212

As the clock ticks towards midnight

and but for a microsecond I will be between two months, two days, two years,

I realize what Janus must have felt like.

Janus, that god of Roman antiquity

with his two faces:

one, looking into the past;

the other, facing the future.

I find it hard to look backwards with regret

or to glance over my shoulder at sorrow

because like Lot’s wife

I know the dangers of looking back at the burning wreckage:

I feel it each time memory bleeds salt from my eyes.

The severed friendship.

The missed opportunities.

The closing gates of another year gone by

in a body destined for decay.

My mortality

—the knowledge that I am but a speck of dust

star-stuff, but nevertheless, only here for a whisper of celestial time—

ought to guide my gaze towards the year to come with eagerness

or hope, at the very least.

But I find myself, at every moment

on the precipice of the future

desperately trying to perform alchemy

and transform fear into bold curiosity.

We make offerings to soothe our worry:

no figs or honey left at altars

but promises and resolutions,

penned on our calendars

tabula rasa, a fresh slate—

we make incantations to time itself.

Beginnings, endings.

Birth, death.

War, peace.

Open, close:

can we not linger in the doorway,

between two rooms,

for just a moment longer,

even as the bells strike twelve?

Montreal Massacre Parliament 20141203

Liturgy for 14 Women: On the 25th Anniversary of the Montreal Massacre

You should never have had to be patron saints of violence,

your names, spoken by us once a year,

your lives, remembered by us only on the occasion of solemnity.

We gather on this day and

we speak each of your names

like the Stations of the Cross, 14 in total.

We trace the syllables of your names

but how many of us remember the cartographies of your lives?

Do we even remember to look at the photographs?

Your gazes transfix us; happy, smiling, as if you held your breaths only for a moment.

Perhaps we are afraid to look you in the eyes.

We have built memorials to you,

clumsy attempts to reconstitute the flesh that your family, friends, lovers

could once reach out to touch.

We have filled them with sharp, rough edges,

constructed from glaring steel;

made of flat, unyielding stone,

shaped as coffin-like benches:

difficult architecture

for that which is unbearable.

But oh, you had such softness

in the lilts of your voices

the curves of your faces

the smooth shapes of your dreams.

montreal-massacre-victims

Top Row L to R: Anne-Marie Edward, Annie-Marie Lemay, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, Barbara Daigneault, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz, Geneviève Bergeron. Bottom Row L to R: Hélène Colgan, Maryse LeClair, Maryse Laganière, Maud Haviernick, Michèle Richard, Nathalie Croteau, Sonia Pelletier.

Roll Call: On Violence and the Power of Naming

The teacher’s struggle:

at the start of each term

after I scan the class list

I fumble for weeks

mastering the correct pronunciations

and linking faces to their names.

Carefully crafting an archive,

always mindful of how often names are carelessly mangled

in the mouths and minds of those

who do not bother to ask how to say them

or to make an effort to remember.

It’s never just a name, you know.

It’s who you are.

It’s who you were.

It’s the one you chose,

or the one you were given.

It’s the one that marked a rite of spiritual passage,

or the one taken up when the Anglos couldn’t bother

to pronounce anything other than

John Smith.

It’s the one that your ancestors had,

the one passed on to you.

It’s what makes you stop—

and turn around.

and makes you smile

when it is spoken with love.

To deliberately forget a name,

to be unwilling to know it—

it and the life those syllables represent—

or to put it under a publication ban

when we all know full well

exactly who we are talking about

to act as if that is an act of protection

that’s violence.

It’s hard, I get it.

We’re all terrible with names, we say.

But even those of us who have to rummage

through the alphabet to recall

the name of an acquaintance,

we know what it is to scream that name in our hazy nightmares

to whisper it

to call it into a room, forgetting that there will be

no

answer.

I want you to say it.

Say her name.

Say their names, all of them.

Say Rehtaeh Parsons.

Say Loretta Saunders.

Say Rinelle Harper.

Say Tina Fontaine.

Say Amanda Todd.

Say Reena Virk.

Say Helen Betty Osborne.

Say Serena Abotsway.

Say Mona Lee Wilson.

Say Andrea Joesbury

Say Brenda Ann Wolfe.

Say Marnie Lee Frey.

Say Georgina Faith Papin.

Say Jacqueline Michelle McDonell.

Say Dianne Rosemary Rock.

Say Heather Kathleen Bottomley.

Say Jennifer Lynn Furminger.

Say Helen Mae Hallmark.

Say Patricia Rose Johnson.

Say Heather Chinnook.

Say Tanya Holyk.

Say Sherry Irving.

Say Inga Monique Hall.

Say Tiffany Drew.

Say Sarah de Vries.

Say Cynthia Feliks.

Say Angela Rebecca Jardine.

Say Diana Melnick.

Say Jane Doe.

Say Debra Lynne Jones.

Say Wendy Crawford.

Say Kerry Koski.

Say Andrea Fay Borhaven.

Say Cara Louise Ellis.

Say Mary Ann Clark.

Say Yvonne Marie Boen.

Say Dawn Teresa Crey.

Say Geneviève Bergeron.

Say Hélène Colgan.

Say Nathalie Croteau.

Say Barbara Daigneault.

Say Anne-Marie Edward.

Say Maud Haviernick.

Say Maryse Laganière.

Say Maryse Leclair.

Say Anne-Marie Lemay.

Say Sonia Pelletier.

Say Michèle Richard.

Say Annie St-Arneault.

Say Annie Turcotte.

Say Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz.

Say Kristen French.

Say Leslie Mahaffy.

Say Tammy Homolka.

Say Breann Voth.

Say Marie-France Comeau.

Say Jessica Lloyd.

Say all the names I do not know

the ones we’ll never know, too,

and the ones not listed.

Say the names of our dead,

and those still alive.

Say the names you’ve never said before,

and the ones you’ve said a hundred times.

Scream them to those who refuse to listen;

whisper them in quiet acts of prayer.

Wave them like flags;

trumpet them as a call to arms.

Say them precisely because they, the ones who need to be called to account

know that to name is to refuse let to anyone get away with

the violence of forgetting.